Ambassador Nominee David M. Friedman – meet Mordecai Manuel Noah, considered the most influential Jew in the United States in the early 19th Century. He was an editor, journalist, playwright, politician, lawyer, court of appeals judge, New York Port surveyor, a major in the New York military, a zealous Zionist, and, finally, he was fired from his job as Consul to the Kingdom of Tunis.
Noah was born on July 19, 1785, in Philadelphia, of Portuguese Jewish ancestry. His father, Manuel M. Noah, served with General Marion in the Revolutionary War and contributed a considerable sum of money to the cause.
In 1811, Noah was asked by President James Madison to serve as US Consul to Riga, in Imperial Russia, but declined, and then, in 1813, he was nominated Consul to the Kingdom of Tunis, which he accepted.
Part of his job was to rescue American citizens captured by north African Barbary pirates and sold to slavery. Until the American Declaration of Independence in 1776, British treaties with the North African states protected American ships from piracy. Then, in 1784, Morocco became the first Barbary power to seize a US vessel. The US secured peace treaties with the Barbary states, in return for substantial protection payments. In 1800, payments in ransom and tribute to the Barbary states reached 20% of the federal government’s annual budget.
The US launched the First Barbary War in 1801 and the Second in 1815 to cut the ransom costs. Algiers broke the 1805 peace treaty after two years, and refused to implement the 1815 treaty until Britain intervened and compelled it to abide by the rules, in 1816.
US Consul Noah was operating in the midst of this volatile mix, negotiating with powers that were easily as hostile to Americans and Europeans then as they are today. He had done well as consul and was able to secure the release of a number of American hostages who were being held in Algiers. But then, after almost three years on the job, in 1816, Noah was removed from his position. US Secretary of State James Monroe declared that his Jewish religion was “an obstacle to the exercise of [his] Consular function.”
Needless to say, the insult caused outrage among Jews and non-Jews alike, as attested to by Noah himself, in his book, Travels in England, France, Spain, and the Barbary States, in the Years 1813-14. Noah sent an abundance of letters to the White House, asking why the Administration felt his religion should be a reason for taking away the office of consul from him. President Madison explained that it was necessary let him go because of “the ascertained prejudice of the Turks against his Religion, and it having become public that he was a Jew.”
This was the only instance in American history in which anti-Semitism was cited as a legitimate reason for revoking the presidential appointment of a Jewish person. Isaac Harby, from Charleston, South Carolina, wrote Secretary Monroe that Jews are “by no means to be considered as a religious sect, tolerated by the government. They constitute a portion of the People. They are, in every respect, woven in and compacted with the citizens of the Republic.”